2949-08-03 – Tales from the Service: The Mereena Sortie 

Word has come to us here at Maribel that most of the officers and crew of the surviving Lost Squadrons ships are being transferred to the Seventh Fleet. Since most of these personnel are apparently guests aboard the Seventh Fleet’s cluster of superannuated carriers, their vessels judged combat ineffective, this seems to be a pragmatic move rather than an organizational one. If and when replacement postings are found for them (which might be some time, since they’re all still across the Gap at Sagittarius Gate), it will probably be to replace combat casualties within the Seventh Fleet rather than aboard new vessels. 

What that means for the two surviving cruiser skippers and the dozen-odd destroyer and frigate skippers has not been announced, but it’s likely all the Lost Squadrons senior officers will be given a considerable amount of time to recuperate from the stress of their ordeal before they are given new postings. This might also be an opportune time to shuffle officers like Samuel Bosch out of field commands and to desk postings. He is, apparently, not a terribly popular officer among the senior ranks of the Confederated Navy, despite his commendable efforts at the head of the Lost Squadrons, and it would seem a sensible move to put him on an academy teaching rotation in any case, given his unique experience fighting the Incarnation. 

A squadron of vessels preparing for the Gap crossing departed Maribel two days ago to reinforce the Seventh Fleet. While Naval Intelligence prohibits me naming the size of the force, I am permitted to state that the old battleship Tranquility, freshly arrived only a few weeks ago from the Core Worlds, was the squadron’s flagship. While I’m not sure I’d trust crossing the Gap in a century-old battlewagon that only two years ago was being demilitarized to function as a museum ship, the Navy knows what it’s doing, and presumably the admiralty has every confidence in the ship’s ability to make the crossing. 

In news nearer to hand, it seems that the ground-side combat services are no longer coordinating their operations with Fifth Fleet command, and have staged a limited but successful raid on the Incarnation depot on Mereena without major fleet support. Mercenary warships, led by the notorious Holzmann, were present, but evidently they were barely needed, with only a single enemy cruiser in range to respond to the raid, and that vessel held back from what would have probably been a suicidal counterattack. This raid captured a significant amount of enemy equipment and a few hundred prisoners, and it is being advertised that the whole supply depot's worth of materiel was destroyed when the raiders withdrew.

Captain Halthora “Hal” Ferro clutched her carbine and tried to focus on the readouts scrolling on her wrist computer’s tiny screen as the dropship thundered down through Mereena’s atmosphere. She could feel the eyes of his subordinates on her, and had to try very hard to look calm and confident while being neither. 

Though only twenty-five T-years old, Hal knew she was older than all but a handful of her junior officers and troops. A Frontier Defense Army company at full strength comprised fifteen officers and one hundred sixty enlisted, and every single one of them was a volunteer. Most of her troops had signed up for three-year terms of enlistment without really knowing anything about what war was, and only a handful of them were veterans, blooded in the charnel-house of Margaux or in the delaying actions which had permitted the evacuations of smaller colonies like Mereena itself. Soon, the bay doors would crash down, and green troops would face the ultimate test. 

Hal wasn’t afraid of dying as such. She’d nearly bought the plot twice already, once during a training operation and once on Margaux’s Causey Plana. Dying, she’d discovered, was the easiest thing in the universe. If she could only die herself and avoid the necessity of ordering her young volunteers to rush in and buy the plot themselves, that would simplify things considerably. 

Unfortunately, Hal knew her duty. As a captain now, she had a headquarters, and a handful of personnel assigned to her as company staff. Her platoon commanders could lead from the front, but she had to stay where the information flow could reach her. 

“Thirty seconds to touchdown.” The dropship’s chipper pilot announced over the intercom, amplified to be audible over the intermittent buzz of the vessel’s nose-mounted autocannon pummeling likely enemy positions. “Opposition on the ground looks light.” 

Hal closed her wrist computer’s protective cover and bowed her head. An old soldier’s prayer came to mind, asking for God’s protection and mercy either on this beachhead or the next. This was the prayer on Hal’s lips when she and three other wounded hauled themselves out of their wrecked personnel carrier during the Botterhill training exercise, and again when the contrails of Incarnation landing craft spiralled down through Margaux’s lavender sky. It had been the prayer looping through her delirious mind after she’d been hit on the Causey, lying half-conscious among the broken rocks during the heat of the day while dead bodies festered all around her. 

The same prayer would have been perfectly serviceable now, but Hal found it insufficient. She wouldn’t be buying a plot on Mereena, nor would she be storming the beaches beyond the Sea of Glass, not today. Some of the confused and apprehensive youths around her, though, would not be coming home. She wanted to pray for their protection, but found herself struggling for the words, even inside her own head. 

The dropship slammed into the ground, rocking everyone in the bay against their restraints, ending Hal’s attempts to structure a prayer for her soldiers. The staccato chattering of the twin remotely operated railguns on either side of the bay doors indicated the presence of enemy soldiers outside. 

Despite her failure to build an appropriate prayer for the occasion in time, Hal raised her head, snapping off her restraints and hefting her carbine as she stood in the narrow aisle. “Welcome to Mereena.” Her officer’s voice turned on automatically, with all its built-in snap and swagger. Maybe she couldn’t really lead from the front anymore, but she could at least be the first one off the dropship when the ramp came down. “Follow me and keep moving.” 

2949-07-19 – Tales from the Service: The Incarnation Masquerade 

Anise Kerr shook her head as the prisoners staggered out of the lift, their guards none-too-gently hauling the Incarnation conscripts forward two at a time. Berkant had once been the most laid-back, easygoing planet in the Reach, and it had only taken one small Incarnation raid to change lackadaisical local militiamen into grimly uncompromising jailors. 

The local constabulary had been hauling in Incarnation stragglers for weeks, but the bedraggled, underfed soldiers who the enemy had been forced to leave behind on Berkant’s surface were hard for Anise to hate. They were no more hardened killers than most of the Frontier Defense Army, and they knew nothing of any use to anyone, least of all themselves. 

If they had come to the world with the good sense to know when they were beaten and throw themselves on the mercies of the locals, most of them would have found Berkant settlers openly hospitable even to enemy combatants, but Nates only had good sense when they were programmed to do so. Their indoctrination told them that Confederated civilians were backwards, dull-witted people, armed to the teeth and only too happy to shoot at any outsider, and that indoctrination had created its own reality when those same Nate soldiers had attempted to subsist on fertile Berkant by plundering and robbing the outlying settlements near their arrival point, the Kardos Bluffs military outpost. 

“Twelve this time, Captain Kerr.” Gallagher, Anise’s liaison with the local militia, set his helmet down on her desk, his big marksman’s rifle still slung over his back. Gallagher had led the most recent series of sweeps personally, and Anise had to admit he got results. “No officers again.” 

The lack of officers among the Incarnation personnel abandoned on Berkant hadn’t been the only strange pattern. Despite the apparent disorder in Incarnation ranks following the unexpected Frontier Defense Army counter-attack, the troops left behind at Kardos Bluffs overwhelmingly enlisted ranks. Only five officers, all junior, were counted among the bodies, with none taken alive. Of the Immortals initially reported to have participated in the Spaceport sabotage and the initial assault on Kardos Bluffs there was no sign; these elite soldiers had either made it to the landing craft, or melted into the Berkant population without attempting to stick with their leaderless troops. 

The heartlessness of Incarnation tactical doctrine would have shocked Anise, if she hadn’t spent nearly a year reading reports from Margaux. The average Nate soldier was eager, skilled, capable, and entirely expendable at a moment’s notice. Officers, whose implants carried more comms equipment and who were permitted to see more than the tactical situation in front of them, were a bit less expendable, but only a bit less. The only lives that seemed to matter to the enemy were those of the Immortals and the senior officers, presumably because of the resources sunk into the high-tech implants both of these personnel classes carried. 

Shuddering, Anise thanked Gallagher and cleared one of her slate computers. As with every batch of prisoners, she’d question them all, and if she learned anything, she would write it up for the planet’s head of Naval Intelligence. 

The last pair of prisoners exited the lift, pushed forward by their militiaman minder, and Anise saw something. She wasn’t quite sure what it was that seemed so wrong about the mop-haired youth barely old enough to be out of tutelage, but something told her this was not like the others. Waving Gallagher to follow, she intercepted the pair and their guard. “I’ll take this one.” 

The guard’s eyes darted between Anise’s Naval Intelligence uniform and Gallagher’s face, as if looking for permission. Eventually, he nodded and casually rapped his baton on the back of the young man’s legs, sending him toppling to the floor. “All yours.”  

As the guard and his final prisoner marched after the others, Anise knelt and helped the prisoner up. “Sorry about that.” With his hands bound behind his back, the young man was no threat; Gallagher’s militiamen knew how to disarm and nano-purge every prisoner as if they were an Immortal. “I want to talk to you, soldier.” 

“I’m not talking.” The young man shrugged off Anise’s hands as soon as he was back on his feet. 

As he turned away, Anise spied what it was that had caught her eye across the room. Motioning to her burly shadow, she grabbed the young Nate infantryman’s head and turned his face toward herself. “Is that so?” 

Though the prisoner tried to struggle out of Anise’s grip, Gallagher grabbed him from the other side and held him firmly in place. 

Anise smiled, reaching up toward the implant curling above the young man’s right brow ridge. All the enemy soldiers had the same model of implant, in the same place, installed in exactly the same way. She’d seen thousands of those little counterhuman augmentations since the start of the war – and this was the first time she’d seen one crooked. With a deft motion, she snagged her thumbnail underneath the metal and tugged. 

Since Incarnation implants were fused to the skull and had components both inside the bone and outside it, a normal unit would have had no purchase where it met the skin for her nail to catch onto. This one, though, came free easily, trailing long streamers of some sort of adhesive goo. It wasn’t fused to the young man’s skull – it didn’t even break the skin. 

“Hey, what are you-” The young man started to protest, but fell silent when his false implant peeled off. 

Anise gestured toward a corridor away from where the other prisoners were being kept. “Put him in solitary. I’ll be along shortly.” 

As Gallagher hauled the prisoner away, Anise looked down at the fake implant in her hand. Other than the convincingly blinking LEDs on its outer surface, the object seemed to be a solid chunk of dumb metal. She’d heard of youths in the Ladeonist underground on worlds like Maribel going over to the enemy when confronted by charismatic Incarnation agents, but this was different. The young man’s fake implant might have fooled the Nates for a few minutes, but he would have lacked the ability to participate in the ad-hoc person-to-person, implant-mediated communications which created such perfect cohesion among groups of Nates. Was the implant intended to fool the F.D.A or the Berkant militia instead? If so, to what purpose? 

With a heavy sigh, Anise tossed the clever disguise onto her desk and headed for the solitary confinement cells. 

Though the Raid on Berkant ended in disaster for the Incarnation several weeks ago, stragglers from their raid force are still being picked up in the Berkant hinterlands to this day. Anise Kerr, a Naval Intelligence officer working with the Berkant constabulary to process these bedraggled survivors when they are captured, reports an interesting phenomenon – a Berkant local youth pciked up in one of these raids wearing a fake Incarnation cranial implant disguise and a convincing Incarnation military uniform. 

Though not capable of fooling actual Incarnation troops, this disguise was sufficient for the young man to be taken as an enemy combatant by the militia who encountered him, and none of the other Incarnation soldiers pointed out the imposter to their captors. 

Nojus and I did a little bit of research, and found that fabricator blueprints for both the false implant and the uniform have been circulating on the datasphere here at Maribel for a while. Rumor on the dark nets is that when (if) the Incarnation comes to Maribel, they will not harm anyone wearing their uniform, and instead will draft them into the occupation force. Presumably, a similar set of propaganda has been circulating on Berkant as well; the poor deluded teenager who Captain Kerr discovered simply mistook the raid and presence of Incarnation soldiers in the wilderness around his family’s compound as a sign that it was time to play the part of a collaborator. 

I wonder how many on the planet quietly produced these disguises during the opening hours of the raid, only to quietly feed them back into their trash digesters once the Incarnation effort on Berkant failed. 

[N.T.B. - Too many. Far too many.] 

 2949-07-13 – Tales from the Inbox: Hugh's Gambit 

If you are seeing this feed item on schedule, it means regular Hypercomm contact has been restored between Maribel and Planet at Centauri. As I understand, the problem lies in an overload of some of the backbone relay nodes in unpopulated systems in the Farthing’s Chain region. This communications breakdown has nothing to do with enemy action that I can determine. 

Also worth noting, I have been told by experts who wish to remain anonymous that military traffic alone did not cause the fault. Evidently, civilian Hypercomm traffic to and from the Frontier is up almost three-fold from where it was before the war, outstripping even the most extreme estimates of Frontier growth made just a few years ago. As of about 18 hours before this item is scheduled for distribution, I am being told that Hypercomm connectivity will be restored “in a few hours.” 

Unfortunately, I have not been able to verify this story any further in the two weeks since it last appeared in this feed. There are circumstantial indications that it is plausible, but someone has gone through a lot of trouble to erase any digital trail of this close-run expedition. 

Hugh Apperlo hooked his safety cable to one of the many grab-points on the exterior of Diane Dragović and scrutinized the rattletrap pirate vessel mated to his borrowed ship’s docking collar. As far as he could guess from the random comms chatter Varinia had picked up and forwarded to his earpiece, three men had crossed over to Dragović to ransack the light-duty hauler, and one had stayed behind at their ship’s controls. 

Of course, since Hugh was outside the A-grav influence of Dragović, “down” was an arbitrary decision on his part. The pirate ship was actually docked several decks above him from the perspective of someone inside, but in microgravity, Hugh preferred to think of every destination as “down.” He hadn’t been a spacer for very long in the grand scheme of things, and it took quite a bit of mental gymnastics to avoid letting catatonic terror overtake him during extravehicular excursions. 

At some point in the distant past, the pirate ship had probably been one of the many near-copies of the popular PCS Albatross surveyor, but it clearly had endured much at the hands of its brigand owners since then. The hull had been crudely relieved in several places to make room for additional hardware which bulged outward, protected from an encounter with debris or micrometeors by thin, hand-shaped cowlings facing the bow. Five small liquid-fuel rockets with bulbous fuel canisters had been attached to the stern with sponsons, and Hugh had at first laughed at the ridiculous way none of them had pointed directly sternwards until he realized that they were also not the same model of rocket – the odd angles at which they’d been installed probably cancelled out the slightly different thrust impulses, allowing the whole set-up to move in a straight line. The original gravitic drive was there too, but its bulged cowling was tangled in a haphazard skein of wiring whose purpose he could only guess at. 

Fortunately, one thing the slapdash ship didn’t seem to have was a preponderance of exterior hull cameras. Hugh had been counting on that. Hugging his bag of high-tech destruction to his chest with one arm, he started clambering down toward the pirate rig. Since the pirates’ pilot had oriented his ship toward the gravitic axis of Dragović, its ventral hull faced Hugh, and its cockpit viewpanels were out of sight on the opposite side. 

Hugh heard a cry of triumph emerge from the babble of unsecured comms traffic the pirates were putting out.  

Before he could ask Varinia what was going on, she filled him in. “They just broke into your cabin, Hugh.” 

Hugh winced. He hadn’t brought most of his personal belonging on this expedition, but he hated to have grubby pirates digging through his effects. “Get on the intercom and tell them to leave my cabin alone.” 

“That won’t stop-” 

“It will convince them there’s something there worth stealing.” If they spent a few more minutes tossing his quarters, they would take longer to work their way up to the command deck, where a door not much stronger protected Varinia, or down to the engine room, where nothing stopped them from tearing critical components out of the gravitic drive. 

Varinia didn’t reply, but Hugh heard a faint echo of her voice on the pirates’ comms band as one of their headsets captured her intercom broadcast. Just as Hugh had hoped, the response was only guttural laughter and a redoubled search within the cabin. 

Gently, Hugh pressed his weightless boots against the pirate ship’s hull and then activated the magnetic soles to anchor himself. It took him only a moment to find three rail-like munitions hardpoints on the underside of the bow. Unfortunately for his desperate scheme, two of them were already occupied by weapons as ramshackle as the ship itself. Hugh groaned; he couldn’t pry one free without setting off alarms in the cockpit. He would have to make do with one. 

Moving slowly to avoid making any noise that might be audible inside the hull, Hugh approached the lone empty hardpoint, hooked his safety line into a projecting loop of material which was probably not designed to be a grab-point, and pulled one of the sleek ovoids from his mesh bag. Slapping a piece of polymer tape over the missile’s computer link pins, he lined it up and slowly pressed it onto the rail.  

The Incarnation weapon slid onto the pitted pirate hardpoint as if designed for it all along, and Hugh thanked God and the saints of universal starship design conventions for this mercy. He had one shot, and would need to make it count. 

Thanks to the tape, the missile failed to connect to the starship’s computer systems, so it reached out wirelessly. When it did, Hugh was waiting for it. He snagged its outstretched link with his suit’s onboard computer. It was possible the wireless ping caused an alert in the outlaw ship’s cockpit, but that couldn’t be helped. As soon as the link was established, Hugh set the missile to scanning for targets. 

“They made it up here.” Varinia’s voice had grown dull and listless; she was, Hugh knew, already mentally preparing herself for the worst to happen. 

“Tell them about what’s in the cargo hold.” 

“But that’s-” 

“Vari, do it.” Hugh winced; the wrecked Jericho bomber might be her only ticket to a return to a normal life, but he wouldn’t let her protect it at the expense of her own person. 

A moment later, the missile achieved a lock on one of the other pirate ships, circling Dragović while their fellows ransacked it. Since it was top of the line Incarnation military tech, even a light anti-strike weapon had enough power to destroy a pirate ship. At least, that was what Hugh hoped.  

“I’m finished here. Retract the docking collar.” He gave the weapon instructions to launch in twenty seconds, then unhooked his safety line and kicked away from the pirate ship, suddenly aware that he would be tortured to death if his little scheme failed. 

“Retracting.” Sure enough, within moments, Dragović’s airlock extension folded back on itself and set the pirate ship gently free. “They didn’t like that. What should I tell them?” 

Before Hugh could come up with something, a bright flash below him heralded the departure of the missile, riding the white-hot fire of its small solid-fuel booster off into the void. He started reeling in his safety line as the pirates’ comms chatter devolved into unintelligible shouting, and was satisfied to hear it grow deathly silent in time with a sudden flash in the void. 

Evidently, Varinia had seen the pirate ship’s death on her sensor readouts as well. “Are you secured? I’m bringing the drive online.” 

“I can take two or three gees.” Hugh, outside the A-grav axis’s influence, would feel every bit of the ship’s acceleration. Fortunately, his suit and safety line were rated for far greater punishment. 

“What are we going to do about our passengers?” 

Hugh felt the safety line go taut as Dragović began accelerating away from the two pirate ships, now circling each other warily. “I don’t know yet, Vari. But I’m sure I’ll think of something.” 

Tales from the Inbox: The Penderite Tabernacle

This is not the conclusion to the story that has occupied this space for a few weeks. While we are not entirely sure why (and Naval Intelligence has not been helpful in getting to the bottom of it), all Hypercast connectivity from our home office here on Planet at Centauri to the Maribel system where Duncan and Nojus are stationed. 

This Hypercast breakdown is widespread and affects a number of systems around Maribel as well. While rumors of sabotage are flying all across the datasphere, it is more likely this is a result of over-stressed relay networks which were never designed to handle the data flow rates the war has created between the Core Worlds and the Frontier. Naval signals tenders are likely even at this moment making repairs to the system, as most low-priority Navy traffic uses the same relays as civilian communications.

Duncan will return with the conclusion to the account of Hugh and Varinia stealing a derelict Jericho bomber next week, provided the network connection is restored by then. Instead, this entry is a story which we sent along to Duncan some months ago and which he edited and prepared for just this sort of occasion. A surprisingly small amount of datasphere attention was given to last month’s launch of the Holy Tabernacle, a starship commissioned and built by the Holy Order of Penderites to transport their high-ranking pontiffs and their most revered relics.  

While the vessel is an impressive feat of engineering, Duncan thought it most interesting that the six-hundred-year-old sect, which has always had its center of religious activity on Earth’s Iberian peninsula and which prides itself on its adherents’ avoidance of modern technology, would suddenly desire to make this center mobile. Operating a starship, perhaps the most complex piece of modern technology in the Reach, is definitely an interesting step for this order. 

When he reached the edge of the balcony, Grand Hierophant Toloni out his arm to encompass the view. "She’s beautiful, isn’t she.” 

Captain Sandra Ibsen couldn’t help but agree. The starship below, half-covered by scaffolding in a specially built docking cradle, was far larger than any vessel that had any right to land on a planet’s surface, but despite its size and the reinforced structures which allowed it to rest on its keel, it had the clean lines and graceful elegance of a much smaller vessel. If it weren’t for the antlike figures of the techs and shipwright workers scurrying about on the scaffolds, she might have thought the vessel no larger than a cutter or ship’s pinnace. 

The old man, leaning on his two-meter-high scepter of office, said nothing, but the smirk tugging upward on his thin lips suggested that he had expected Sandra to be taken aback. 

“This is...” Sandra leaned on the railing and looked down to the open-air shipyard below. There must have been thousands of humans living and working in the facility. “I thought the Penderites didn’t-” 

“We reject over-reliance on technology, Captain Ibsen.” Toloni shrugged. “But we are not so inflexible as the Amish or the Samarites. When necessary, we will use the tools of the age.” 

“When you requested my presence, Your Eminence, this is not what I expected.” Sandra had grown up among Penderites on Hercules – she'd even been sent by her parents to train at one of their religious academies. She had, however rejected the ascetic life of a Sister Priestess before completing her course of study, left the academy, and hopped aboard a tramp freighter bound for Vorkuta. The unsmiling honor guard of the Grand Hierophant had been something of an alarming welcome party when she had landed on Earth. 

“Then our efforts have not been in vain.”  Toloni pointed to the vessel in the cradle. “We have labored in great secrecy on this. I wish to hire you as a ship-commander for the Holy Tabernacle.” 

“Me?” Sandra took a step back. She had just completed a contract skippering a small passenger-liner on a milk-run route between Earth and Maribel, but the vessel below was at least twice the tonnage of anything she’d been responsible for in the past. “That’s at least a five-hundred-million-credit-” 

“One point four billion Confederated credits so far.” The old man coughed, as if admitting the figure hurt him. “It may have been two billion if we had not done much of the work ourselves.” 

The idea of the Holy Order of Penderites recruiting a staff of technically savvy engineers and shipwrights, either from its own converts or from those outside the faith, was simply too much for Sandra to bear. The order was large and wide-spread throughout explored space, but to sell enough wealth to raise billions of standard credits must have nearly drained its coffers even so. Penderites lived simply, with little technology, and avoided access to the datasphere which suffused the lives of most of the citizens of the Reach. In their view, living closer to the land, Earth’s or that of another life-bearing planet, helped them form and strengthen a relationship with God. 

“That’s not a transport ship, Your Eminence.” Sandra pointed to the lines of still-empty hollow sockets running down the sides of the ship. “You’re fitting it for combat. I’m not qualified to command a cruiser of war.” 

“You wound me, Captain. We do not engage in warfare. Our creed forbids it. We are arming Holy Tabernacle, yes, but only as a means of self-defense.” 

“Who would attack a Penderite-flagged vessel?” 

The old pontiff smiled. “Come. You must want to see her up close. Once you have, perhaps you will understand.” 

Despite the old man’s age, he quickly outpaced Sandra on the stairs leading down to ground level. Breathing hard and cursing the order’s idea that an elevator constituted over-reliance on technology, she trotted to catch up with him as he walked out into the vast courtyard. She noted the Kosseler crests on crates stacked between the barracks and workshops which she passed by. If the Order was importing parts and equipment all the way from Ori to build a ship of war, the government had to know about it – and if they weren’t doing anything about it, that meant the Grand Hierophant’s project had almost certainly received official sanction, and perhaps covert financial support. 

The walk to the cradle was longer than Sandra expected, perhaps because she had still underestimated the scale of the facility. Despite the orderly gridwork-arrangement of the structures raised around the ship’s cradle, she suspected she had walked more than a kilometer before the sweeping hull of Holy Tabernacle loomed above her head. She would have checked this figure on her wrist computer, but the Order had forced her to leave the device and all her other computer hardware in a locker at the checkpoint at the edge of the temple grounds. 

Waving aside a pair of armed guards, the old man led up a steep ramp to a hatch in the ship’s side, still showing no sign of slowing down. Several techs installing crystalline circuit-blocks into access panels near the airlock jumped to their feet and bowed their heads at the pontiff’s approach, but he paid them no mind. 

Inside the ship, Sandra had hoped to find the Penderites using lifts, but she was dismayed to find Toloni leading her to another damnable stairwell and headed up. She had lived more than half of her life in half-gee shipboard conditions and climbing interminable stairs in Earth gravity was simply exhausting. 

Holy Tabernacle is a vessel designed for one mission, and it is of utmost importance that this mission succeed.” Toloni waved his staff, whose crystalline head barely missed scraping on the overhead panels, for emphasis. “We can crew the ship with lay Penderites who have come to us from your profession, but we lack officers. If you accept this job, you will be responsible for recruiting officers.” 

“I can... Do that.” Sandra tried and failed to keep her breathlessness from showing in her voice. “Except gunnery... officers.” 

“That has already been arranged.” 

Three decks up from where they had boarded, the Hierophant abruptly left the stairwell and led Sandra into a wide corridor that appeared to extend across the breadth of the ship. A pair of the Hierophant’s honor guards in their gaudy parade uniforms stood on either side of a heavy hatch at the midpoint of this long hall. The moment they spotted the Hierophant, they stood at attention, heads bowed and antique bayonet-fixed rifles resting on their shoulders. The men didn’t look up as the pontiff and Sandra approached, but she could tell as Toloni withdrew a large key from his robes and fitted into an archaic-looking tumbler-lock that they had both surreptitiously taken her measure and inspected her visually for weapons. 

“Remove your shoes, Captain Ibsen.” The Grand Hierophant leaned on the key until it turned, the tumblers within clicking audibly into place. “The deck beyond is holy ground.” 

Still recovering her breath, Sandra knelt to loosen and slip off her shoes, trying to recall from her partial religious instruction what sort of place might be within. As far as she knew, a Penderite only removed their shoes in a place believed to contain the very real presence of God. There were no such places in the Penderite enclave or Penderite religious academy on Hercules. 

As soon as she stood in her smartfabric socks on the cool deck, Toloni pushed the hatch open. Unlike most shipboard hatches, it was hinged to open inward like the double doors of a static building, and it swung open easily even for his thin arms. The space beyond was dimly lit, but before Sandra’s eyes could adjust, the Hierophant grasped her wrist and led her in. 

“Do you remember what the original Tabernacle was built for, my wayward Sister?” 

Sandra looked around, seeing incongruous oil-lamps hanging from the buttressed pillars on either side of her. The space within was surprisingly small, but high-ceilinged, and she realized it was some form of onboard chapel. 

“To allow the Children of Israel to pay homage to their God in their wanderings, Your Eminence.” Sandra replied. Perhaps the Grand Hierophant meant to visit his widely distributed faithful – a tour of the largest Penderite enclaves would indeed be a novel step for the technologically-skeptical order. 

“Yes, but... There was more.” Toloni stopped at a vast, heavy curtain that ran the length and height of the compartment. “It was the very seat of God, and so is this ship.” 

Sandra remembered her old lessons. Those who stepped through the curtain in the original Tabernacle without being extensively sanctified had been struck dead. Despite the increasingly agnostic attitudes which had dominated her life as a spacer, she shied away from this forbidding shroud. 

“God has spoken to us, Captain. The Order of Penderites will not long be safe on Earth. Ancient Iberia will soon reject us, so we will remove the holy things from this land.” Toloni turned away from the curtain to Sandra. “Dark times are coming. Will you come back to the Order in this time of need?” 

Sandra swallowed, terrified but strangely at peace. “I... I will, Your Eminence. You can count on me.” 

Toloni smiled warmly. “I knew I could, Sister. Come, let me show you your quarters.”